If you’re looking for color and patterns I have found the brand for you! Designer duo Alicia Declerck and Zhanna Belskaya make up the brand Alter Era. The Belgian label is paving the way for bold women with pieces that will last forever. I caught up with Alicia and Zhanna and talked everything from design inspiration to sustainability to celebrity crushes.
Lynzi Judish: What made you decide to work together instead of creating your own labels?
Zhanna Belskaya: We used to study in Italy together and used to live together, so we always gave each other feedback in our studies and artwork and it was our dream to build something because we shared the same aesthetics.
Alicia Declerck: We already knew very early on that even if we came from completely different backgrounds that we had similar values and aesthetics, so throughout our studies we were like mentors for each other. There was already a collaboration and a relationship that was nurtured from very early on. There’s that spirit also when you’re studying fashion design and there’s a lot of projects and late nights. As roommates we went through that together, so there’s a close bond almost like a sibling type of relationship that’s very honest and authentic. We always kind of knew that we would do something bigger together as we shared a vision and common values. The dream of co-founding a label was there from the start.
ZB: Also, I couldn’t imagine someone else. I knew that if I would ever work with someone as a designer duo it would be her. It was a dream for seven years. We were studying for the first three years and after having not seen each other for another four years after graduation we found a way back to each other.
AD: It was at that point that we reunited after our studies and living in different continents.
LJ: Yes, I saw that! You were both working for different designers in completely different parts of the world. I feel like it’s so amazing to have someone that shares a dream like this because it can be very complicated for a lot of people to work with a partner in design.
LJ: How did the two of you come up with a name for your brand?
ZB: On one hand it refers to our historical research and inspirational world; creating an “Alter” world based on a bygone “Era”. On the other hand, the name also refers to and is a continuation of our personal story. Our reunion in Belgium became the start of a new chapter, a new beginning.
AD: It really refers to that new chapter in life because it was quite coincidental that we found each other after having lived in different continents. It was always in the back of our minds that we wanted to collaborate with each other. It was very far away at that time. There was a certain time in my life that I was going through a phase where I was going to make new decisions and it just so happened that Zhanna was going through the same phase and was back in Europe. One reunion led to us making the decision to start this collaboration. We’ve always wanted to do it and if we didn’t do it then it would probably never happen. The timing was perfectly aligned.
ZB: It wasn’t just another chapter in our professional lives, but also our personal lives. We were drunk on this new life *laughs from both Zhanna and and Alicia*
LJ: I love that. I feel like you’ve been able to translate that into your clothing. It feels very new, like the future, but not far off. I don’t mean this as in outer space, but where fashion is going next.
LJ: I’m curious why you two chose Belgium as your headquarters. Are you both from Prague? (I used to live in Prague and first learned about the brand there).
ZB: I’m from the Czech Republic. At first, we were based there fiscally, at least for the first year, and then we moved to Belgium because we felt we would benefit from being a Belgian brand. The history of Belgium fashion fit for us. And most of our customers are here. We found this market interesting for us. The production is all happening in Prague, but because our customers are in Belgium they are proud to be wearing a Belgian brand. It’s support for the local designers from your country and as our clients are mostly here it made the most sense.
AD: There was more activity in Belgium. There was more commercially. Initially we saw ourselves as a European brand. As a Czech/Belgian designer duo it was not important to us where we were initially. Prague is interesting because it’s very new to the fashion scene while Belgium is an institution and each option could have been very interesting to us, but we noticed from the client and press point of view that it’s very important that you give a home to your brand. Base is often linked to a country and identified by the place where it’s based. We went from a Czech/Belgian designer duo, which was confusing for people, to a Belgian brand with a product produced 100% in Europe.
ZB: However, we do still have a PR agency in Prague and participate in Prague Mercedes Benz Fashion Week. It’s a nice base and it’s interesting for us.
LJ: I’m curious how the two of you work together. Do you ever hit design road blocks or differences in opinion on how design goes? I know you said you have very similar aesthetics, but you’re bound to part ways time to time.
AD: We don’t always agree on everything, which I believe is important: sometimes disagreement is needed for the best outcome; we need to question and challenge each other from time to time. Eventually we always come to an agreement, of course.
ZB: But I feel this is more operational and less in design or concept.
AD: More of small details! But I feel when it’s really important to Zhanna or she can feel when it’s very important to me, so we can put ourselves in the other one’s shoes. Generally, it’s not a problem.
LJ: Your latest collection is very loud, and I mean that in the best way possible. I’m curious how you two came up with the patterns and what influenced the geometric style and combination of colors?
ZB: I went to Paris and bought me a book called Dandy Lion written by the American author Shantrelle P. Lewis.
AD: It’s basically about dandyism. It’s a way of dressing, but with a touch of ethnic. This is something that was born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. You see a group of men well-dressed and wearing suits made from ethnic prints. It’s originally this movement of men called sapeurs: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/La_Sape a very proud type of man in the Democratic Republic of the Congo that dress very well. The style found its way to urban cities. Lewis https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shantrelle_P._Lewis studied African culture prior. She describes African style and movement. In Belgium we also have our Dandy Lion types in the music industry, the best known contemporary dandy in Belgium is probably Stromae . We wanted to come up with a dandy woman.
ZB: It’s a full-printed silhouette, but if you look at our previous collections we already have that. When we started the research, I tagged Lewis on Instagram and in the end, she came to a fashion show in Prague. Her book was such an inspiration for us.
LJ: The thing that I find most amazing about the patterns is that you found a way to draw inspiration from Congolese prints without crossing the line into cultural appropriation. It’s something very important and I don’t feel like you stole from a culture, but rather were influenced from it.
ZB: It’s true that it’s difficult and something we constantly need to question because as designers we have a responsibility and it’s a line we don’t want to cross. For us inspiration comes from admiration for something and the last thing we want to do is insult. The idea is reinterpreting rather than copying.
LJ: One of the pieces I thought was unique in the latest collection was a shoulder-less blazer, which is interesting because I haven’t seen this before. It’s rare that you see something new in fashion and so much is recycled. How did the two of you come up with the design? And what is the functionality? Is it comfortable to wear or is it just a runway piece?
ZB: The idea was not to do it so obvious. I wanted to come up with something new and to do something we hadn’t seen before in this shoulder-less design.
AD: It’s not just the ethnic inspiration, but also the dandyism tailored suits. The idea was to bring those two worlds together and the result was a tailored suit that was deconstructed and reshaped from an image from an African garment worn off the shoulders. It’s something you’ll see often in the traditional dresses.
ZB: To make sure the vest stays in place we reinforced it by fusing the lining of the piece together with the denim. We also designed a matching belt to keep it in place, but even without the belt it is comfortable and stays on.
AD: It’s constructed in such a way with the lining and the tailoring that it’s very comfortable. The thing that’s fun working with Zhanna is that she likes to work with layering and the blazer gives you the opportunity to really explore whatever you’re wearing underneath. If it’s a printed shirt you can show the print.
LJ: That’s brilliant because you can see so little of what’s underneath a blazer, especially if it’s buttoned.
ZB: When you work with full silhouettes on the runway and layer it’s great as well.
LJ: Obviously this collection has some amazing and innovative pieces, which makes me so excited for what’s next. Can you give us any hints on what we might expect later this year? What are some words to describe the inspiration or direction?
AD: We are now finishing the collection. The collection is inspired by Art Deco. It’s something we’re inspired by and is in all the architecture on the houses, museums, restaurants, etc. in Belgium It’s a theme that we already explored way back when we were students and collaborated, so it’s something we’re both very passionate about. The thing about Art Deco that’s fun for us is that there’s a lot of geometry in there that we can reinterpret. It’s fun to show it in a new context. In the prints we work with different textures in marble. We looked at different examples with Art Deco tiles that we worked with different marbles and outlines, and we played with this. We have a couple of prints that are a bit more complex as well that are real print placement where you have a print continuing in the seams. Those pieces are a bit more architectural.
LJ: Have you two ever thought about expanding your brand into the US? Is there a place someone could purchase your clothes in New York? How do we get our hands on clothing from here?
ZB: We just launched an e-commerce site and we do already have clients in the US. We ship through DHL and have customers from Instagram as well. I also just got back from New York and wore a lot of our brand and received a lot of compliments and reactions, so I think it will be an interesting market for us.
AD: We already did some prospection here and there; it’s definitely something we want to further explore. I lived a few years in the US; First in New York when I worked at Diane Von Furstenberg, then in in California at Rodarte. It’s a place I feel connected to and feel we could have a market there as well.
LJ: A lot of women are a bit intimidated about purchasing designer fashion because of affordability. Fast fashion is also at our finger tips and these days it’s harder to convince someone to go designer. Do you have any pieces in your recent collection that are a bit more affordable, like a gateway piece?
ZB: Everything is about the choice. Even H&M has a conscious line that’s a bit more expensive or other fast fashion lines that have pieces comparable to young designers. I think it’s a choice you make. We do have some affordable pieces though.
AD: We definitely have some pieces in the collection that are a bit more affordable. That really depends on the materials. Cotton is a lot less expensive than silk, so we have some affordable cotton pieces such as cotton shorts and tops. There are also some little accessories.
Some of our favorite pieces for purchase:
LJ: And now for a lighting round! If you could travel anywhere where would it be?
ZB: I’m going to Japan in September, which has been my dream for a long time!
LJ: Do you prefer sweet or salty treats?
AD: I’m super into sweets!
ZB: We are both into sweets. *laughter all around*
LJ: That makes three of us! What is one item that you always have that you can’t live without?
ZB: My phone because I don’t live close my parents. I need it so I can always be in touch.
AD: My guitar. (To Zhanna) If you are keeping your phone then I’m always reachable!
LJ: Cats or dogs?
Both in unison: Dogs!
LJ: Best book you’ve ever read?
ZB: Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera
AD: Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts
LJ: Celebrity crush?
ZB: Keane Reeves! It always will be Keanu!
AD: Ben Harper the artist.
LJ: Halloween or Christmas?
LJ: I want to talk a little bit about sustainability. The concern about our footprint on this planet is all too real. What is Alter Era doing to better the planet with your brand and what future plans do you have in that department?
AD: For us sustainability is something we take very seriously. We don’t see it as a way of positioning; we just see it as a must for everyone in this industry. It’s a standard. It’s not a niche anymore. It’s just a value everyone should have. For us, it started with finding the right suppliers that work with sustainable methods. Your way of being sustainable doesn’t just exist in the studio. We are very conscious about where we order our fabrics, where we print them and in which method.
LJ: Can you give a few best practices about the materials you use or the process?
ZB: Our best seller is a silk shirt. The silk is digitally printed in Italy, in Como, known as the city of silk. We have a minimum waste of fabrics because of the way we design.
AD: We make sure that the cutting is organized in such a way that we have a minimum waste. It’s a process that takes a little more time.
LJ: What do you think is the most important message to women wearing your brand or potentially wearing your brand that you want to get across as a label?
ZB: We want to empower women. We want them to feel good and look good without making any compromises. I think going back to sustainability, the main goal is to do high quality clothes that you will wear for many seasons. Something that can be worn through the years.
AD: We create that way not just through a quality point of view, but also through aesthetics. We want it to be timeless. We don’t necessarily believe in trends.
ZB: You can mix different collections together. We want the woman to wear our clothes to feel good and to inspire other women to be bold and to make a difference. To things differently and to find your own way.
My summary: dress bold and be bold
story by Lynzi Judish
photographer: Mojmir Bures
makeup: Ana Japson